Snow-capped peaks, glaciers, powdery slopes, and rustic huts serving hot drinks: Austria’s appeal as an alpine tourist destination results in almost 60mn overnight stays each winter, with the influx of visitors swelling many villages’ populations tenfold.
The country’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, which accounted for 7.6 per cent of GDP in 2019 — more than half from winter visitors — and is recovering well after the pandemic. For decades, it drove an economic boom. At high altitudes, traditional farming communities bet their futures on the rise of skiing and luxury hotels replacing grazing cows.
But climate change is now putting that at risk. In the Alps, average temperatures have been rising by about 0.3C a decade, twice the global average. And snow cover persists for one month less than in the past, according to data from 2,000 weather stations.
“It’s just not possible to rely on snowy winters anymore,” says Karl Morgenbesser, general manager of the Saint Corona ski resort, which has lived off skiers for four decades. It is a realisation that has trickled through even to those who long denied the effects of climate change. Many observers are now asking how communities that have relied entirely on snow and skiing can adapt.
Technology is the first line of defence. An estimated 100,000 snow-producing machines are scattered across the Alps. Their cannons can cover pistes in pristine powder. In Schladming, which has twice hosted the world skiing championships, 600 machines spit snow over the slopes, ensuring that the season can kick off by early December.
“It’s a very good and very efficient system,” says chief executive Georg Bliem, of mountain railway and leisure group, Planai Hochwurzen Bahnen. Fourteen days used to be the minimum needed to produce the millions of cubic metres of snow for the ski area, but better equipment — including spreading machines with sensors to measure powder depth — has cut that time by almost half. Even so, Schladming must still spend €3mn to make enough for the start of the season.
The electricity required is another concern, especially as prices have soared. Experts say there is little scope to make the technology more efficient, though: if it is too warm, snow melts.
“It’s a time of change — that’s the new reality — but, in principle, I’m not worried about the future of winter tourism here,” insists Bliem, pointing to Schladming’s relatively high elevation, with lifts and cable cars reaching 2,000m.
Other resorts, however, lie at much lower, warmer altitudes. Climate models show that temperatures rising by another 1.5C would mean about a third of the eastern Alps’ winter tourism destinations could no longer guarantee snow throughout the ski season.
Saint Corona, nestled below 900m, was one of the first victims of climate change. The regional government had cut financial support, deeming the area too low for large investments that would take decades to pay off. As the ski resort became less attractive, hotels and restaurants closed. When Morgenbesser took over as general manager in 2015, he was intent on saving the resort where he grew up. Without a response, he says, “you’d have an economic downturn — first the bakery closes, then the kindergarten, and on and on”. But, that December, he found himself walking the muddy slopes in cargo pants. At 21C, “there was no way we could have even considered making snow,” he recalls.
Instead, he came up with another idea: investing in summer. In the past seven years, Saint Corona has built an extensive network of mountain biking trails, a rollercoaster-style toboggan run on rails, climbing spaces and parks, landscaped hiking paths, and paddleboard rentals for the reservoir.
An hour south of Vienna, the village now draws more people in summer than skiers in winter, with summer accounting for two-thirds of the gross proceeds. “It’s been a tremendous success,” Morgenbesser says. “Every product we’re planning for the future will need to be something that can also be used in winter, when there’s no snow,” he says.
Across the Alps, most tourism communities are taking a similar path, says Robert Steiger, who studies the impact of climate change on alpine tourism at the University of Innsbruck. “Nobody really denies the effects of climate change here anymore, and almost everyone is trying to diversify,” he says.
Investments in summer are key. Mountain biking, climbing and hiking are offering models for the future and, as cities and beaches are hit by blistering heatwaves, an increasing number of people are escaping to the cooler Alps.
“Many places will have to make a major pivot, and it’s going to be the ones taking risks now who will benefit in the long run,” Steiger says.
Schladming, too, has invested in summer with hiking trails, a petting zoo and an ice-sculpture park. In 2012, Bliem says, only three out of 10 mountain cabin restaurants were open in summer. Today, the number of visitors has risen so that seven of the cabins can serve dumplings and schnitzel year-round.
There is one big caveat. “Skiers spend more money than hikers,” says Bliem. In Saint Corona, too, a day when the ski slopes are open reaps higher revenues.
In the case of most resorts, Steiger says: “We’re not seeing a product that can substitute for ski tourism. Perhaps we’ll still find one, but for the moment, it’s not quite clear what will happen to these communities.”
Oliver Fritz, a senior economist and tourism expert at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, puts a figure on the loss. He says that, without snowy winters, about a third of the €30bn that Austria’s tourism industry generates annually would falter. “It would be an enormous economic damage,” he says. “And, to a certain degree, we won’t be able to avert it.”